UFOs, Basements, and Blowguns: The Art of Curtiss A
Minneapolis rock legend, Curtiss A, makes the transition from music to visual art with his first solo show at Gallery 122. The exhibition, entitled Something To Do Until The End Of The World, features over 70 of Curtiss’ large collages created over the past 10 years. The gallery walls are packed with images of Curtiss’ personal mythology, making the space overwhelming and definitely worth seeing.
On the advice of Stephanie Sturgis, my contact at Gallery 122, I visited Curtiss at his home to preview his work. Stephanie told me that the house was “a piece of art in itself”. She sent me some dark pictures of Curtiss’ basement that showed stacks of action figures in front of collaged walls, it was hard to tell what exactly was going on, but I was intrigued. I recruited Scott West, visual artist, Cloud Cult member, and excellent photographer, to accompany me with to get some good shots.
Scott and I pulled up in front of Curtiss’ house in a quiet neighborhood in St. Paul. There was nothing unusual or Rock and Roll about it. An elderly woman was watering her lawn next door. She smiled and waved to us as we greeted a documentary film crew standing on Curtiss’ well kept front lawn. Turns out, a film about him is in the works.
The only thing surprising about the first floor of Curtiss’ home was that there was nothing surprising about it. It was clean and comfortable. I found Curtiss in his kitchen, intently stapling a piece of cardboard into the back of a vintage wooden frame. A cigarette was precariously hanging from his lips. He was getting ready for the show.
There were no formalities or light chit-chat, Curtiss just jumped into talking about his work. He is sincere and excited, warm and open, loud and just cuts to the chase. He makes you feel like you’re his friend and he’s letting you in on something. It would be hard not to like him.
Curtiss brought me over to an enormous stack of his framed collages leaning against a wall in the living room. He made it clear that it was essential we go through each of the pieces together, nearly 100 of them intended for the show, one at a time. To my surprise, he could pull the title of each piece off of the top of his head. They had great names like, “Helps Here”, “Don’t Take It Out On Me”, and “Dreaming of Djenie”.
The work consisted of delicately cutout figures placed in front of layered backgrounds. Some of the images were taken from art books, magazines, and history books … but the vast majority are from comics. He compares his collages to sampling (which strangely he is dubious of). At times Curtiss transcends collage and adds his own marks to modify a figure or create the illusion of transparency, drawing in part of what is pasted under it. These surfaces are so well worked that you can’t help think the word “obsessive”. But they are also strangely beautiful.
Curtiss’ subject matter fits into two major categories: the end of the world and UFO abduction. Often the two coexist. In the end of the world scenario, his scenes often depict the very moment when the Earth is at the brink of ultimate destruction (which is sometimes caused by UFOs). Here we see superheroes rushing in to rescue humanity. Alongside them are often the nation’s forefathers, 20th century celebrities, and religious figures. Whatever it takes.
When it comes to UFOs, Curtiss’ inspiration comes from his own alien abduction. The abduction happened in 1969 but, he says he “didn’t really address it until the early 1990′s… as far as going mental”, he laughs. This changed his perspective on life greatly. “Believe it or not, sex and drugs and Rock and Roll become like- ‘yeah that’s great- but why don’t we see a tornado with a UFO’…that sort of overload”. The UFO abduction made everything else seem mundane.
Though his work may redefine the word “busy”, his compositions are, for the most part, strong. There is solidity in the midst of what at first seems to be absolute chaos. And this is no accident. Curtiss is very aware of composition. We talked about this as we went through his stack of work, pointing out the repetition of shapes and how the angles of figures relate to one another. But he doesn’t do art-talk. Rather, he’ll point at three figures and say things like, “leaning, leaning, leaning” showing where it guides the eye. And he’s right on.
When we were down to the last 10 or 20 collages, Curtiss decided to play me a recent recording of him singing The Beatles’ “Good Night” that ends with an “audio collage”. He blasts it. The instrumentals were lush and his vocals uncharacteristically soft on the recording. Our conversation about his work digressed into the two of us pointing at funny things in the collages and laughing. At that point, I figured it was time to go to the basement. Scott had already headed down there and was taking pictures.
Curtiss A’s basement is a prepubescent boy’s dream den. About half of the 1,000ish square foot space is filled with thousands of action figures placed in what Curtiss calls “montages”. The walls behind the figures are covered in corresponding collage. A winding trail goes through the middle.
There is nothing haphazard about the “montages”. The figures are set in crowded scenes where they are interacting with one another. The scenes are separated by themes according to per superhero type, or by Curtiss’ own categorization. The setup is so precise, that Curtiss makes tiny adjustments as he walks through. He might lift Doctor Manhattan’s arm a quarter of an inch, or adjust the angle of the Creeper’s head.
If there is not an action figure for a character he wants, Curtiss will make one out of the “spare parts” from others, adding in details with paint. He even made one of himself. “It looks pretty darn close”, he said about it. When I asked where the head came from, “some wrestler”, was Curtiss’ response.
Besides the action figure montages, the basement also contains an endless collection of curiosities. There are autographs on the wall from Chuck Berry, Tammy Wynette and Eric Clapton (among others), a thrift store clown painting that could have been donated by John Wayne Gacy (Curtiss is particularly proud of that), and a shrine to Elvis who inexplicably wears a Hitler mustache (at this point sensory overload had taken over and I wasn’t able to ask). Hanging from the ceiling are his “crime fighting weapons”.
Curtiss pulled down a three foot long blowgun and took out a dart that looked like a three inch needle with a small yellow feather on the end. It was impressive enough for the words “holy crap” to inadvertently fall out of my mouth.
“What you do is, in your utility belt, you keep some excrement in a test tube, and you dip it in there”, he explains loading the needle into the blowgun. He points to a picture of a Jim Walsh torn from a newspaper hanging amongst a million other things on the wall. “I have nothing against Jim Walsh. I like him. But I’m going to hit him in the forehead”. Next thing I know, there is the sound of forced air and a “wack”! But it didn’t stick.
“I’ve got to do this again”. I looked over to see that Scott had retreated into the stairwell. I stepped into a doorway. “Ping”. It stuck in the wall that time, right over Jim’s head. The third was a hit.
I suggested it was getting late. Art-talk was probably over at this point. Scott agreed.
On the way out, I thanked Curtiss for his time and openness. He told me that the experience wasn’t too bad for him, he was worried he was going to be put under a microscope.
With all joking and oddities aside, Curtiss A has to be one of the most all-around talented people I’ve ever met. Creativity seems to just ooze (or maybe more like sprays) from him. He is a character, and he uses this to his advantage. What Curtiss A lacks in formal training, he more than makes up for in intuition. His work is dense and rich and, most importantly, it’s interesting.
On View: Aug 18- Sept. 20th
Where: Gallery 122 at Hang It!
Address: 122 8th Street SE, Minneapolis
Gallery Phone: 612.874.7222
Hours: Monday 9-5, Tuesday – Thursday 9-7, Saturday 10-4, Sunday Closed